Local writer Jennifer Barrett has been working on her first novel for six years. The manuscript, currently titled Fly Away Birdie, is set in Townsville during World War Two and lead Jennifer on some nail-biting research expeditions to ensure its authenticity. Jennifer is currently completing the ACT Writers Centre’s HARDCOPY programme, with hopes it will lead to the traditional publishing of her work.
You’re about to head into the final round of HARDCOPY. What exactly is that?
Every year, the ACT Writers Centre runs a manuscript development programme called HARDCOPY and we weren’t told numbers, but we were told ‘shitloads applied’ from around Australia. Thirty writers across the country are selected – and I was in that 30. Then from that 30, 10 are selected to go to the last round where we have half an hour one-on-one interviews with editors, publishers and agents. And I’m one of the 10 – there are two from QLD, but I’m the only one from North Queensland. I made it all the way through from Townsville, with a story about Townsville.
Can you tell me about the story? It’s about two sisters who run away from Bowen and arrive in Townsville in 1942, at the same time that tens of thousands of Australian and US soldiers land here after the fall of Singapore … One of the sisters falls in love with an American, who then disappears on a plane.
I’d actually interviewed my great grandmother’s cousin who married an American during the war and I got some information and inspiration from her. When I needed to kill off this US soldier I thought “Wow. How am I going to do this?” and then I remembered that during the war a plane crashed on my great grandfather’s property out west. It wasn’t until about five years after the war that they were mustering and rode over the hill chasing some poddy cows, that they discovered the plane crash and the bodies and everything still there. In our family, the story goes that there was an Australian on the plane who was flying from PNG to Brisbane to see his six-month-old daughter who he’d never seen, and there was also an American who wasn’t on the manifest. So I went hunting and I found that daughter and I interviewed her and I found out what her mother had been through and how badly [the Army] had treated her to the point where all she got was a letter saying her husband was missing, presumed dead. When they found the plane, nobody bothered contacting her. She knew instinctively that that was the plane he was on and it was found west of Bundaberg. She got a train up to Bunderberg, she got herself an interview with the bloke who was head of the search party … she identified [her husband’s] dog tag and some other personal items that they’d collected, and then they were happy to confirm that he was on the plane … The stuff I discovered in the research, I could write a whole non-fiction article about that, it‘s just amazing.
Where did the idea for this story spring from?
About six years ago there was a reading at Mary Who? Bookshop one Saturday and instead of reading short stories and things I’d read before, I wanted to come up with something new and fresh, so I just wrote 1500 words: it was just a dump from my head about an abusive father, I set it in Bowen for some reason, but it was about this abusive father coming home from work and hitting the mother and everyone really responded to it so I thought ‘oh, maybe I should see what I can do with this’. It just went from there. I thought ‘what can I do with these girls? Where can I put them? What will be interesting?’ So I brought them to Townsville during the Second World War and just went bang.
What are you hoping to achieve with the manuscript?
I went back to Canberra in November [for the last round of HARDCOPY] and my work was discussed with me by editors, publishers and agents. It’s putting me in the best position I really could be to get it published. I want this to be traditionally published, then the rest that I write – I’ve got lots of ideas, but I’m just waiting to get this one put to bed before I start on something else – the rest, I will self-publish.
I’m sort of hoping that Townsville people will relate to the story. I’ve already had some people be the readers to see whether it sounds authentic, whether it flows, whether there’s any lagging spots, and everyone has said they can just picture where they are. I’ve referenced buildings, streets, places and they’ve said “Yep, I know exactly where I am”. So I’m hoping of nothing else, it’ll be popular in Townsville.
For updates on Jennifer’s work or to broaden your own writing knowledge, visit the Townsville Writers and Publishers Centre on Facebook.